Snooping as the new normal

Surveillance is going be a major theme in 2020. The good news is that there will be lots of dissent and protest this year. But how will an authoritarian government without a concept of compromise - or even tactical retreat - deal with widespread protest? Especially if this protest involves a large number of Muslims?

First, protestors will be demonised mercilessly. A propaganda attack must be the first response according to their war manual. We have had six years to see how the violent, communal rhetoric of the "proud to be followed by PM Narendra Modi" twitter army sets the tone of more mainstream discourse. The protestors will be anti-national, extremist, illiterate, puncture-wallahs who can be identified by their clothes. The Sangh twitterati will find evidence of a foreign hand - where there are signs of intelligent life, they see a foreign hand. The importance of a foreign hand is that once there is a foreign hand, nothing is off-limits. The propaganda is to pave the way for a "law and order" response to the protests. Dissenters need to be monitored, controlled and punished. We have already seen this language in use.

This government is deadly serious about surveillance. The Modi-Shah duo are old hands at politically motivated snooping. And snooping with other motivations too. Remember Snoopgate when Modi was stalking a young woman? No one even really denied it was happening, but the case was dropped after her father claimed it was with his permission! How quickly the outcry died down.

They shrugged off the WhatsApp snooping scandal which should, in a functioning democracy, have brought the government down. They haven't even seriously attempted to deny it was them who hacked into human rights campaigners' and opposition leaders' phones - why should they? They probably want people to know. Apart from such clandestine and almost certainly illegal approaches, new technologies such as facial recognition will become increasingly important. Aadhar, NRC, NPR, and so forth are also huge data collection and surveillance exercises. This may well be their primary purpose - personally that is our view. Added to these big projects we have the numerous "watchlists" and dictats about monitoring social media posts - directly by government agencies, or via police, universities, and so forth. This kind of monitoring has been happening for a while and will certainly intensify.

A worry is that there won't be sufficient opposition to government snooping. We don't seem to give enough value given to privacy as a basic human right. We are so used to joint families, close-knit communities and everyone knowing everyone's business that it almost seems natural that the government should know our business too. If you have nothing to hide then why not? But people protesting the NRC-NPR-CAA know better - there is nothing benevolent here. This is snooping to stifle democracy.

We should be outraged. But we can't let the fear of surveillance interfere with our protesting. In some ways, being very open may be the safest thing to do. But it's important we keep in mind that we live under a regime obsessed with keeping track of us.

You may want to have a look at some articles tagged "surveillance" on Narendra Modi Facts. The first draft of our website was done in mid-2013, before Modi was even BJP leader. Judging the mood at the time we felt fairly sure that he would become BJP leader, and then prime minister. A lot of the things we foresaw have come to pass. If you like us and are on twitter, please follow us: @nmodifacts.